On This Day

San Francisco earthquake, San Francisco 1906 earthquake, San Francisco earthquake fire
Associated Press
Residents stand amid ruined buildings on Sacramento Street, San Francisco, after the earthquake of April 1906.

On This Day: San Francisco Struck by Devastating Earthquake

April 18, 2010 08:00 AM
by Kate Davey
On April 18, 1906, San Francisco experienced what would become known as the worst earthquake in U.S. history, destroying almost the entire city.

Earthquake Destroys San Francisco

At 5:12 a.m., about 20 minutes before dawn, an earthquake with a magnitude between 7.7 and 8.3 occurred on the San Andreas Fault near San Francisco, coming in two shocks lasting a little over a minute. It was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles, and left much of San Francisco in ruins.

Witnesses said the quake was like the ocean rolling—the earth actually moving—and sounded like “the roar of the sea.” Henry Powell, a police lieutenant, said that Valencia Street started to “roll in waves like a rough sea in a squall, but it sank in places and vomited up its car tracks and the tunnels that carried the cables. These lifted themselves out of the pavement, and bent and snapped.”

Almost immediately after the quake ended, massive fires broke out and spread quickly through the city, compounding the devastation of the earthquake. Many pipes had ruptured, cutting off the water supply, and the fire chief had been critically injured in the earthquake. The firemen, aided by 2,000 federal troops, decided to dynamite some of the buildings to create firebreaks, and only ended up causing more fires. The fires lasted four days, and in that time, as NPR reports, they leveled more than three-quarters of the city.
In addition to avoiding fire, dangers from the aftermath of the quake and looters, San Francisco residents also had to avoid being shot. Eugene E. Schmitz, the mayor of San Francisco, ordered the police to “KILL any and all persons found engaged in Looting or in the Commission of Any Other Crime.” He also requested that “all citizens remain at home from darkness until daylight every night until order is restored.”

The earthquake left more than 3,000 people dead, 225,000 homeless and destroyed more than 28,000 buildings.

Advances in Seismology

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake inspired the start of the scientific study of earthquakes in the United States.

Before 1906, U.S. scientists were far behind Europeans and the Japanese in the gathering of information concerning earthquakes.  After the earthquake, it became evident that California, and the U.S. in general, would benefit from studying earthquakes and fault lines.

At the time, Andrew C. Lawson, chairman of the geology department at the University of California, Berkeley headed the State Earthquake Investigation Commission. In 1908, the Commission presented a report, now known as the Lawson report, on “earthquake's damage, the movement on the San Andreas fault, the seismograph records of the earthquake from around the world and the underlying geology in northern California.”

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